Pivotal Moment

The Obama Administration’s “pivot” to Asia was supposed to be a transformative shift. Why has it led to such underwhelming results?

By Joshua Kurlantzick

Tagged AsiaDemocracyForeign Policy

Since the start of President Barack Obama’s first term, the United States has pursued a policy of rebuilding ties with Southeast Asia. By 2011, this regional focus had become part of a broader strategy toward Asia called the “pivot,” or rebalance. This approach includes shifting economic, diplomatic, and military resources to the region. In Southeast Asia, a central part of the pivot involves building relations with countries once shunned by Washington because of their autocratic governments, among them Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam, and reviving close U.S. links to Thailand and Malaysia. The Obama Administration has also upgraded defense partnerships throughout the region, followed through on promises to send high-level officials to Southeast Asian regional meetings, and increased port calls to and basing of combat ships in Southeast Asia. The White House also is near completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Pacific Rim free trade deal that, if it is finalized, would create the world’s largest free trade zone in terms of the total GDP of all the countries involved. Four countries in Southeast Asia—Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Singapore—appear ready to sign on to the TPP, and other Southeast Asian nations including the Philippines and Thailand may sign on within a few years of the deal coming into effect.

Yet despite these developments, the pivot has been badly misguided. The policy has been wrong in two important ways. First, the White House has focused too much on the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, which—with the exception of Vietnam—have provided minimal strategic benefits in return. This focus on mainland Southeast Asia has distracted attention from the countries of peninsular Southeast Asia—Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore—that are of greater value strategically and economically.

Second, increased U.S. ties with mainland Southeast Asia have facilitated political regression by empowering brutal militaries, condoning authoritarian regimes, and alienating young Southeast Asian democrats—at a time when democracy has stalled in the region and around the world, and U.S. support for a democratic revival is more important than ever. This deterioration is particularly apparent in Thailand, which seemed to have established a working democracy in the 1990s, but has regressed politically more than any other state in Southeast Asia over the past 20 years. Reform also has stalled in Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia. This political regression will have strategic downsides for the United States: In the long run, young Southeast Asians—the region’s future leaders—will become increasingly anti-American, and an authoritarian and unstable mainland Southeast Asia will prove a poor partner on economic and strategic issues.

Through the remainder of the Obama presidency and into the administration of the next President, the United States should refocus its Southeast Asia policy in two ways. First, it should restore the emphasis on democracy and human rights in the region. In particular, the United States should slow and, in some cases, halt growing military-to-military ties with the countries of mainland Southeast Asia. Such a policy might be difficult for a President Hillary Clinton, who has called engagement with Myanmar a highlight of her foreign policy as secretary of state, but it is essential for refocusing U.S. policy in Asia. Washington also should refocus its aid on democracy promotion in East Asia, a policy shift that would be easier for Clinton if she were President, as she has been a longtime advocate of rights and freedoms in Asia. Second, the United States should upgrade its relations with Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam by working to sign a treaty alliance with Singapore and expanding diplomatic, economic, and military ties with these four nations. Such a policy shift would allow the United States to better align its Asia policy with democratic values and maximize the strategic benefits of U.S. interests in Southeast Asia.

Recent U.S.-Southeast Asian Relations

Southeast Asia was at the center of U.S. foreign policy during much of the Cold War. However, the end of the wars in Indochina in 1975 made the region a lower strategic priority for the United States. Still, the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis kept Southeast Asia on the Clinton Administration’s radar; the attention extended to vocal support for democratization in Asia. In 1998, Vice President Al Gore publicly lambasted the Malaysian government for detaining protestors and blocking democratization.

Throughout the late 1990s and the 2000s, many Southeast Asian nations began to democratize, as domestic conditions in these countries and outside pressure prompted political change. In Malaysia, which had been a de facto one-party state, a real opposition emerged in Parliament, led by former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. Even in Singapore, the financial crisis fostered greater public criticism of the long-ruling People’s Action Party; that shift in public sentiment allowed opposition parties to emerge.

The United States should restore the emphasis on democracy and human rights in the region.

The George W. Bush Administration came into office with no clear policy toward Southeast Asia, and the 9/11 attacks and subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reduced whatever interest it had in the region. Other than issues related to the war on terrorism, the Administration had minimal high-level interaction with most Southeast Asian nations. One exception was its fostering of closer relations with Vietnam, which included boosting military-to-military ties with Hanoi by bringing high-level Vietnamese officers to the United States for training programs, launching port calls by U.S. Navy vessels, and hosting the first visit to Washington of a Vietnamese prime minister since the Vietnam War.

The Obama Administration, including Secretary of State Clinton and her top deputies, came into office vowing to counter the Bush Administration’s perceived lack of interest in Southeast Asia and in East Asia more broadly. Ultimately, the Obama White House chose to launch an approach that would become known as the “pivot,” though that word would eventually be jettisoned in favor of the term “rebalance.” The pivot had multiple components. It would, the Administration promised, shift the general focus of U.S. foreign policy to East Asia, the world’s fastest-growing region and one with four U.S. treaty allies and several other important partners. It would also include a shift of naval assets toward the Pacific and new deployments of U.S. Marines in Australia and possibly other locations. Furthermore, the pivot included the promise of enhanced diplomatic relations with a wide range of Asian nations, a renewal of U.S. attempts to forge a regional East Asian trade pact, and a recommitment that senior U.S. officials would appear at important Asian regional gatherings. Ultimately, the trade component of the pivot became the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

Southeast Asia was seen as critical to the pivot, in part because the Obama Administration believed the United States had far more ground to make up in strategic influence there than in Northeast Asia. U.S. ties with Seoul and Tokyo had remained relatively strong during the Bush Administration. Led by a President who had spent some of his childhood living in Indonesia, the Obama Administration believed that the United States could make major inroads in relations with Southeast Asia.

The Administration’s policy emphasized building or rebuilding relations with the four authoritarian nations of the mainland—Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar—as well as with semi-authoritarian Thailand and Malaysia. There were several reasons why the Administration prioritized mainland Southeast Asia. There was clearly room for U.S. relations with mainland Southeast Asia to improve. While the U.S.-Vietnam relationship had blossomed under Bush, it was still hindered by congressional opposition to closer ties, concerns in Washington over Hanoi’s human rights record, and Hanoi’s desire to balance ties with Washington and with Beijing. Meanwhile, the U.S. government had maintained only extremely limited interactions with Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar. Some Southeast Asia observers also viewed mainland Southeast Asia as an area of increasing strategic importance because it sat in the middle of a growing network of road, rail, and sea links tying together South and East Asia. Several nations in mainland Southeast Asia, among them Myanmar and Vietnam, also have untapped natural resources and large potential markets.

In addition to its position at the center of growing intra-Asian trade routes, mainland Southeast Asia also seemed, to some Administration officials and Southeast Asia observers, to be a region where the United States and China were now competing directly for influence.

The Obama Administration also hoped that renewed relations with mainland Southeast Asia would deliver a broader foreign-policy victory. If rapprochement with mainland Southeast Asia produced closer diplomatic ties and an environment conducive to U.S. investment, it might demonstrate that interaction rather than isolation should be at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Finally, as several former Administration officials noted, once the Obama Administration had committed to building ties with mainland Southeast Asia, it would look bad politically in the United States for the White House to halt the process or slow it down. This was particularly true in the case of Myanmar, where the Administration would expend considerable political capital convincing lawmakers and human rights organizations that rapprochement was the correct policy.

The Pivot in Action

With Myanmar, after nearly two decades of U.S. isolation, the process of rapprochement moved rapidly. Myanmar policy soon became a high priority for the Obama Administration, commanding personal interest from Secretary of State Clinton, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and President Obama himself.

Myanmar’s ruling generals had officially given way to a civilian government in 2011. Even though that government was still led by a former general, it nevertheless released hundreds of political prisoners, allowed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party to operate openly again, removed (for a time) many restrictions on the media and on public gatherings, and began liberalizing sectors of the economy. A series of senior U.S. leaders, including Secretary Clinton (in 2011) and President Obama (in 2012), paid visits to Myanmar. The White House upgraded the U.S. Embassy in Yangon by replacing the chargé d’affaires with a full ambassador. The Obama Administration began training programs for a select number of Myanmar military officers. Perhaps most important to the Myanmar government, the Administration urged Congress to halt economic sanctions, and, in 2012, Congress eased sanctions on Myanmar. By 2014, Japan, Australia, Canada, the European Union, and most other democracies had ended nearly all sanctions on Myanmar as well.

The Obama Administration has pursued similar efforts to boost relations with five other Southeast Asian nations. In Cambodia, it has conducted small-scale annual joint military exercises, and U.S. Special Forces have provided training to Cambodian forces. The United States exchanged defense attachés with Laos for the first time in 30 years and began to provide some military education programs for Laotian soldiers. The U.S.-Vietnam relationship also expanded rapidly: In 2013, the Obama Administration agreed to form the U.S.-Vietnam Comprehensive Partnership, which will serve as a framework to further improve bilateral ties.

While the U.S.-Vietnam relationship had blossomed under Bush, it was still hindered by congressional opposition to closer ties.

At the same time, the Obama Administration tried to improve relations with Malaysia. The White House worked closely with Kuala Lumpur in negotiations on the TPP and expanded military exchanges and training programs for Malaysian officers. In 2014, President Obama became the first sitting U.S. President to visit Malaysia in nearly five decades, and appeared to develop a personal rapport with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak; the two became golfing partners.

Senior Obama Administration officials also built close connections with leaders from Thailand’s traditional Bangkok elite and maintained deep, extensive relations with senior generals in the Thai armed forces. A series of populist parties have won every election held in Thailand since 2001 by appealing mostly to poor and rural Thais, who comprise the majority of the population. In 2008 and 2009, military and royalist elites helped orchestrate a kind of parliamentary coup, enabling the Democrat Party, traditionally the bastion of Thai elites, to gain control of Parliament. Eventually, popular anger at the Democrat government crested into massive street protests in Bangkok in 2010. Still, the U.S.-Thailand relationship continued, even after the Thai military opened fire with live ammunition on demonstrators in May 2010, killing at least 80 people. Only after a populist party won elections again, and another coup was launched, in May 2014, did the White House impose some sanctions on aid to Thailand.

Rationales for the Pivot: Democracy

Although the Administration’s rationales for the pivot were first and foremost strategic—to address the growing importance of Asia to the world economy, the shift of U.S. interests away from Europe and the Middle East, and the rise of China (left unsaid)—the pivot was also theoretically designed to play a role in promoting democracy. In particular, renewing U.S. relations with the authoritarian nations of mainland Southeast Asia was intended to help foster political change in these countries after sanctions and isolation had supposedly failed to induce reform.

The Administration listed the promotion of rights and democracy as major goals of specific elements of the pivot. When one of the highest-ranking American military officers ever to visit Myanmar, Pacific Command’s Lt. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, came to the country in 2014, along with Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Tom Malinowski, they insisted that the primary rationale for growing military-to-military relations with Myanmar was to inculcate a culture of respecting rights among the Myanmar armed forces.
Both in public and in private, Administration officials and senior diplomats working in Southeast Asia echoed Malinowksi. They argued that prolonged and expanded military ties would teach Southeast Asian officers about the need for civilian command of the armed forces and offer education in human rights.

This was a dubious argument, as there was little evidence that military-to-military relations could change the operating cultures of foreign militaries. In a damning recent study of U.S. military training programs for foreign armies, political scientists Jonathan Caverley, then of Northwestern University, and Jesse Dillon Savage of the University of Melbourne found that “the number of military officers trained by the U.S. International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Countering Terrorism Fellowship (CTFP) programs increases the probability of a military coup” back in their home countries.

Minimal Rewards

The pivot has failed in several ways. For one, the Obama Administration has invested considerable time and political capital in improving U.S. relations with mainland Southeast Asia, yet the United States has reaped minimal rewards from this investment. The argument that mainland Southeast Asia is of critical strategic importance to the United States simply has not been borne out over the past five years. Despite some Southeast Asia observers’ insistence that the smaller countries in mainland Southeast Asia—Laos and Cambodia—have strategic importance, in reality they remain nations with small populations, tiny economies, and little to contribute to regional defense. Total annual U.S. trade with these two countries is less than U.S. bilateral trade with Belgium.

The possibility that mainland Southeast Asian states will ally themselves more closely with China unless the United States aggressively cultivates them has also proved an unconvincing argument for the pivot. Although China was becoming increasingly influential in Southeast Asia during the 2000s, Beijing’s recent assertiveness in the South China and East China seas has undermined China’s relations with its neighbors. In the past three years, Chinese and Vietnamese boats have rammed and fired on each other in the South China Sea. Myanmar is also distancing itself from China: The Myanmar government’s leading negotiator in peace talks with ethnic minority insurgents recently condemned China for meddling in the talks. Many Myanmar officials note that the government is desperate for Western aid, investment, and relationships, and that a slower process of economic and diplomatic normalization with the United States would not have curbed that hunger for Western investment and relations.

Beijing’s recent assertiveness in the South China and East China seas has undermined China’s relations with its neighbors.

Despite efforts by the junta that took over Thailand in May 2014 to boost relations with China, the Thai government also cannot easily sever economic and strategic links to the United States, Japan, and Europe. China’s direct investment in Thailand remains minimal compared to that of Japanese and U.S. companies, and the Thai military officers who have participated in joint exercises with Chinese forces have returned dissatisfied with the quality of the exercises. The Thai military remains heavily dependent on training from the United States and on U.S. weapons systems.

Moreover, even if the smaller nations in mainland Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia or even Myanmar, were to essentially become Chinese satellites, the strategic downside to the United States would be minimal, given the paucity of U.S. trade with and military commitments to these countries. In addition to the false notion that mainland Southeast Asia is an area of critical competition between Washington and Beijing, the region has also become increasingly unstable in the past decade. This instability has made many mainland Southeast Asian nations poor potential partners for the United States and unattractive to investors.

The Thai government, for example, has been unable to participate in the United States’s regional trade agenda because Bangkok’s leaders have been consumed with domestic Thai politics and clamping down on any challenges to the ruling junta. As in Thailand, the Najib government in Malaysia has in the past three years been distracted by domestic political turmoil, itself largely a result of the ruling coalition’s electoral fraud and crackdown on dissent. Malaysia is also stagnating economically: The ruling coalition, forced to rely increasingly on conservative ethnic Malay votes to win elections, has scrapped plans to reform the economy and reduce government subsidies that benefit ethnic Malays.

Myanmar also remains extremely politically and economically unstable. Its volatility precludes investment and makes it difficult for the government to provide any substantive cooperation to the United States on issues ranging from narcotics interdiction to combating pandemic disease. In fact, in recent years Myanmar’s political instability has worsened with the rise of Buddhist paramilitaries—which now attack Muslims across the country—in addition to the continuing conflict between the government and ethnic armies. Myanmar’s opaque policymaking and the threat of nationwide civil conflict have already dampened potential U.S. investors’ enthusiasm for the country. (Offshore oil and gas are an exception; foreign investors have remained highly interested in Myanmar’s offshore blocks.)

Only Vietnam offers enough potential strategic benefits for Washington to justify spending significant U.S. diplomatic and military resources to upgrade ties. Its military is larger and, in a conflict, potentially far more effective than that of any other country in mainland Southeast Asia, including Malaysia and Thailand. Its location, right next to the South China Sea, puts it at the center of vital shipping routes and at the heart of one of the most dangerous areas of the world.

Moreover, a younger generation of Vietnamese officials, who did not fight in the war with the United States, has come to dominate the foreign ministry and military; they see a stronger relationship with the United States as essential to Vietnam’s future security. As the most populous nation in mainland Southeast Asia, Vietnam also offers an economy that—if the government restores macroeconomic stability and reforms indebted state companies—has far more room to grow than that of most other nations in the region. Vietnam’s industrious and inexpensive workforce has continued to attract major foreign investors.

Distracting the United States from Other Priorities

The focus on mainland Southeast Asia not only has delivered few strategic benefits to the United States but also has distracted U.S. leaders from more important regions and issues in Asia and the rest of the world.

The Administration has spent too little time fostering closer economic and diplomatic ties with the countries of peninsular Southeast Asia—Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines. These nations would be better long-term partners for the United States than mainland Southeast Asia, as they are richer and more politically stable than most of mainland Southeast Asia and have far brighter economic futures. The Philippines, long considered the economic laggard of Southeast Asia, has in the past three years experienced some of the highest growth rates in the world, and the country is expected to keep up its high growth throughout this decade. Indonesia, meanwhile, has grown at 5 to 6 percent annually for a decade, and currently enjoys a demographic dividend—a large number of working-age men and women in relation to the number of older men and women.

The countries of peninsular Southeast Asia, as well as Vietnam, also sit in a more strategically important location than most mainland Southeast Asian nations. (Although Thailand is a treaty ally, the U.S.-Thailand relationship was formed during the Vietnam War era, when Thailand’s location near Vietnam was more critical.) Peninsular Southeast Asia directly abuts the South China Sea, one of the world’s most important shipping areas. In addition, growing disputes between China and other nations over claims to the South China Sea make it one of the likeliest places in the world for conflict to break out.

Yet the Obama Administration has made minimal progress in building closer relations with these crucial nations. Most importantly, the U.S. bilateral relationship with Indonesia, the biggest economy in Southeast Asia and the most powerful country strategically, has not reached its potential. Washington has devoted little effort to fostering U.S. investment there, and it has not regularly sent cabinet-level officials or deputies from Commerce, Treasury, and other agencies to promote economic relations. By comparison, senior U.S. officials have made visits to Myanmar to encourage investment and to help guide its government in writing foreign investment laws—although Myanmar’s economy is nearly 15 times smaller than Indonesia’s.

Democratic Damage

Throughout much of the 1990s and the early 2000s, Southeast Asia was one of the brightest spots for democracy globally. Since the late 2000s, however, the region’s democratization has stalled; in some of its most economically and strategically important nations, it has even reversed. Malaysia’s democratic institutions and culture have regressed, with the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition cracking down on dissent. The government essentially reinstated under a new name the long-hated Internal Security Act, allowing people to be detained indefinitely without trial, and has put the country’s opposition leader in jail on dubious charges and tried to shutter press outlets that reported allegations that the prime minister may have enriched himself at public expense.

Over the past ten years, Thailand has undergone a rapid and severe democratic regression. The country has been mired in political crisis since 2006, when the Thai military launched a coup while Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was abroad. Since then, Thailand has been consumed by cycles of violent street protests and counter-protests, short-lived governments brought down through extra-constitutional means, and harsh crackdowns on dissent. In Myanmar, members of the military allegedly have been involved in new paramilitary groups emerging throughout the country, burning down Muslims’ homes and shops, massacring Muslim families, and bombing Muslim quarters of cities. Suu Kyi has said little about these attacks, drawing widespread criticism from the international community for her silence.

Over the past ten years, Thailand has undergone a rapid and severe democratic regression.

Many of the reasons for democracy’s failure in Southeast Asia are unrelated to outside powers, but the White House’s policy toward the region has also accelerated democratic backsliding. The most serious damage to democracy has been done by growing U.S. military ties with mainland Southeast Asian nations: These increased ties have not upheld promises that they would help make armed forces more accountable and less abusive. Indeed, a Government Accountability Office analysis of the International Military Education and Training program and other military-to-military training programs showed that they rarely discuss human rights.

The Obama Administration’s desire for stronger military and diplomatic relationships throughout Southeast Asia also appears to have made the United States reluctant to take significant action when elected governments in the region are overthrown or undermined. Most notably, after Thailand’s 2014 coup, Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the putsch and the Obama Administration suspended some military aid to Bangkok—as it is required by law to do—but stopped short of applying tougher sanctions. Harsher measures could have included asset freezes and travel bans on military leaders or an announcement that the United States would move the massive Cobra Gold joint exercises to another location for an extended period of time.

The Obama Administration has also deemphasized democracy promotion. In much of the region, the White House has combined democracy promotion and governance programs. Consolidating the two types of programs has limited the time embassy staffers and contractors spend on democracy and civil society promotion.

In addition, the Administration has offered only muted criticism when electoral democracy in Southeast Asia has been thwarted. In Malaysia, for example, three days after parliamentary elections in May 2013, the White House congratulated Prime Minister Najib Razak’s coalition on winning control of Parliament. The congratulations came even though Najib’s coalition had lost the popular vote to the opposition, and some election monitors had reported that the coalition would have lost a majority in Parliament, too, if not for widespread fraud.

The White House also took little action after Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party was accused of stealing the 2013 national elections from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party. (Hun Sen supporters allegedly committed massive fraud during vote counting.) The opposition’s leaders appealed to foreign donors, including the United States, to push for a recount monitored by impartial observers; foreign donors provide more than 50 percent of Cambodia’s budget and thus could have significant influence. Instead, the United States and other donors applied minimal pressure on Hun Sen. The Obama Administration approved a congressional spending bill that suspended only a tiny portion of American aid to Cambodia.

Alienating Younger Generations

Military-to-military ties with abusive armed forces, tolerance of coups, and ignorance of fraudulent or overturned elections have imperiled the United States’s long-term relationship with younger Southeast Asians. These men and women have repeatedly expressed their preference for democratic change in polls and by voting for reformist opposition parties in countries that include Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia. For now, young people in much of the region also tend to have relatively positive views of the United States, in contrast with the popular anti-Americanism that exists in regions including Latin America and the Middle East. It is thus unlikely that, as might happen in a place like Saudi Arabia, free elections in any Southeast Asian nation would bring to power politicians more anti-American than the authoritarian leaders currently in place in countries such as Malaysia or Thailand.

But alienating younger generations will have serious long-term repercussions for the United States’s relationships with Southeast Asian partners. In Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and other countries, many reform-minded young people have been mystified when Washington—which a decade ago had been so vocal about democracy in Southeast Asia, and which still has significant influence in the region—has taken little action after elections are undermined, coups launched, and election victors defrauded. In previous eras, American rhetorical support for democracy, pressure against authoritarian leaders, and linkage of aid and investment to political change played a critical role in fostering democratization in East Asia. In the 1980s and early 1990s, concerted U.S. pressure on the governments of the Philippines and South Korea—after years of American tolerance of Ferdinand Marcos and a series of South Korean dictators—was a major reason why democracy prevailed in Manila and Seoul.

In addition, democratic regression is likely to make Southeast Asia more unstable. Numerous studies of political regimes and conflict have shown that hybrid or authoritarian governments are more susceptible to prolonged internal conflict or even civil war than democracies. Countries that sustain democracy also tend to be more stable in their growth rates, even when those rates over time are roughly equivalent to those of their authoritarian peers. In the World Bank Group’s rankings of countries by ease of doing business, nearly all of the countries or territories in the top ten are democracies.

Alienating younger generations will have serious long-term repercussions for the United States’s relationships with Southeast Asian partners.

Although Vietnam’s authoritarian government also harshly represses civil liberties and political freedoms, the significant strategic value of the U.S.-Vietnam relationship makes it worthwhile for the United States to continue building a close partnership with Hanoi. In addition, unlike in Myanmar or Thailand, the Vietnamese government, though repressive, has clear control over the armed forces. Moreover, polls show that young Vietnamese do not seem to see the U.S.-Vietnam relationship as bolstering the Communist Party in the way that many reform-minded Thais, Malaysians, and Cambodians see Washington as bolstering autocratic leaders in their countries.

In summary, instead of continuing a low-reward and high-effort process of rapprochement with mainland Southeast Asia, Washington would benefit by rethinking its relationship with the region. It should focus greater attention on three peninsular Southeast Asian nations—Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines—and on Vietnam. This renewed focus could include several steps, including covertly approaching the Singaporean government to propose signing a formal treaty alliance, bolstering U.S.-Philippines relations by expanding the size and scope of bilateral annual military exercises, institutionalizing the annual U.S.-Vietnam strategic dialogue at a higher level, and making good on the mostly unfulfilled promises of the U.S.-Indonesia Comprehensive Partnership to focus high-level U.S. government attention on promoting investment in and economic ties with Indonesia.

The United States should also scale back the pace at which Washington is building military ties with mainland Southeast Asia, and it should institute a more effective oversight process of its military training programs for Southeast Asian armed forces—especially those, not including the Singaporean armed forces, that either have a history of abuses or involvement in politics. The United States also should renew its emphasis on democracy promotion in mainland Southeast Asia. It could do so by shifting the budget of USAID programs focused on democracy, the National Endowment for Democracy, and USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives to encompass more of Southeast Asia. Currently, according to a report by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the United States devotes only roughly 4 percent of its aid spending to Asia—a miniscule amount given the developing region’s population. The United States also should make clear that it will respond harshly to future democratic reversals, including coups, in the region. Such developments should be met with immediate halts to most military-to-military relations and other possible measures such as targeted sanctions applied to the assets of senior military leaders who launch coups.

The White House has time to reconfigure its Southeast Asia policy and leave in place for its successor a policy more aligned with U.S. values and more conducive to the United States’s long-term interests in Asia. A shift in the pivot would, in some ways, require an admission that some aspects of Southeast Asia policy were mistaken and, perhaps, overoptimistic. Focusing on the four countries that are more important strategically and (with one exception) most aligned with American values would achieve the goal of ending Obama’s presidency with the most effective Southeast Asia policy possible.

In addition, rethinking the pivot in Southeast Asia might help slow and even reverse the region’s democratic regression. This change would be beneficial not only for people seeking freedom throughout the region but also for the United States’s long-term interests, which are best served by the spread of stable democracies. The United States still has more leverage to foster democracy in Southeast Asia than some in Washington currently believe. Using that influence will help endear the United States to rising generations in Southeast Asia and will ensure that Washington’s partnerships with the region are strengthened well into the twenty-first century.

Read more about AsiaDemocracyForeign Policy

Joshua Kurlantzick is senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations. This essay is adapted from a Council on Foreign Relations Working Paper, “The Pivot in Southeast Asia: Balancing Interests and Values.” The author recognizes the generous support of the Open Society Foundations.

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